HMCTS Probate User Group update – May 2023

STEP is a member of the Probate User Group, which brings together His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Services (HMCTS), professional bodies and charities to address issues with the probate service.

At a recent meeting, the challenges that HMCTS (in England and Wales) faces in catching up with an increasing workload and reducing timeframes were discussed.

We welcome the increase of staffing levels at HMCTS. However, the importance of working through the backlog of applications and reducing timeframes for probate users in England and Wales can’t be stressed enough.

A recruitment drive was carried out late last year, with one hundred new staff joining HMCTS in permanent roles. Recent months have required experienced HMCTS front line staff to provide training to these new employees, which has contributed to some of the delays we have been hearing about from STEP members.

With this training now complete, and experienced staff back on the frontline of the probate registry, we hope to see improvements to services in the coming months.

We are encouraged to learn that staffing levels are 30 – 40% higher than before the recruitment drive last year. We expect to see this growth to have a positive impact soon.

HMCTS publish monthly figures: there is an improvement in cases dealt with in March 2023 compared with February. These are still below where they should be, and we understand April figures are unlikely to be encouraging. We were advised that this is largely due to the majority of outstanding cases being paper applications.

The online portal has undergone improvements, enabling applicants to log in and check in real time the status of their application. We are advised that further improvements are in the pipeline, including adding a ‘hard stop’ to prevent applications from people who have not waited the statutory 20 (working) days from filing the inheritance tax (IHT) return with HMRC.

HMCTS explained that many practitioners are still simultaneously filing the IHT Return and the probate application. Rather than speeding up the probate, it actually has the reverse effect and takes around twice the length of time for the probate to be granted, because of the need to wait for HMRC to upload the IHT certificate to the shared HMRC/HMCTS portal.

We welcome these improvements to the digital service. We are hopeful that continued improvements to the online system will contribute to the reduction in stalled applications.

Members should be advised to escalate urgent probate applications by telephoning the Probate Registry to explain the reason for probate to be granted urgently. This could be because there is a property being sold or purchased, or because of financial hardship. HMCTS explained that each case is reviewed on its merits.

We understand the frustration many members have with the pace of change to HMCTS processes, and we will continue to relay these concerns on your behalf. If you have any feedback or questions relating to probate services, please get in touch with our Policy Team at [email protected]

Ben Bell, Government Relations Manager at STEP

5 thoughts on “HMCTS Probate User Group update – May 2023

  1. Ben, Did they give any indication when these additional staff will become productive? March, April and May have seen shocking performance from the Registry. Over 25% of the applications that we have sat at the registry are over 16 weeks old. Of these older cases the average age of them is actually 9 months! This cannot go on, especially when HMCTS, through the Ministry of Justice, continue to give a very different picture as to performance on the website, which makes us look ridiculous in front of customers who are already frustrated at the time it is taking to deliver grants back!

    1. We agree that timeframes are not satisfactory, and we’ve relayed this disappointment to HMCTS. We’re advised that the training required to bring new staff up to speed has required more time and resource than originally anticipated. Average wait times for phone calls have dropped from 30-40 minutes to 10 minutes, so there is at least some progress being made.

  2. We are still experiencing delays well beyond 16 weeks and in some cases, the paper applications have been sitting unattended for 16 weeks until the matter is chased , only to find out they cannot locate the papers or have overlooked registering them on their system and nothing has been done with them in the first 16 weeks. A timeframe is requested and we are told they cannot give one. This poor service has a domino effect. While HMCTS have these long timeframes, HMRC are happily charging interest on unpaid inheritance tax which cannot be paid due to the Grant not being available. Not all estates have suffficient liquid assets for the purpsoes of direct payments to HMRC and therefore it is common that a property needs to be sold in order to pay the IHT. Without the grant, the interest on the unpaid inheritance tax accrues at a high rate. Checking this week, the interest rate is 7%. In conclusion the delays with probate applications are directly allowing HMRC to charge interest on unpaid IHT which could have otherwise been paid earlier had it not been for the substantial delays in relation to probate applications.

  3. Did the user group confirm whether there had been additional recruitment of actual registrars? I was advised in recent weeks by a member of staff at the Cardiff PR that there are only 2.2 registrars for the whole of England and Wales! The gentleman told me that Cardiff PR only get a registrar for one day each week. – Thursday. Many of the paper based applications have to go in front of the registrars, which seems to be why these are now taking the best part of 6 months to be dealt with, which frankly is ridiculous but it isn’t difficult to see why the system is grinding to a halt based on what I was told.

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